Tá áthas orm deis a fháil labhairt sa Seanad ar an t-ábhar tábhachtach tráthúil seo. I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a comprehensive statement on the circumstances that led to the weekend's recall of all Irish pork and bacon products and to help clarify issues that have arisen since.
I will start by giving a brief chronology of the lead-up to the recall of the pork and bacon products. This issue came to the notice of the Department on Friday, 28 November when an indicative test on a sample of pork fat, routinely taken under the Department's national residue monitoring programme, was positive for the presence of a contaminant, non-dioxin like marker PCBs. These are preliminary indicators of potential contamination, but do not confirm the presence of dioxins. The sample was tested in the Department's laboratory complex in Backweston which I visited yesterday.
On the Saturday the farm from which the sample had been taken was visited by officers of the Department. They arranged for the slaughter and sampling of an additional three pigs from the farm and also took samples of feed. On Monday, 1 September, the first sample was confirmed positive for contamination with non-dioxin like PCBs. When the three further fat samples and one feed sample proved positive for non-dioxin like PCBs, the samples were taken by a departmental official to the Central Science Laboratory in York for analysis for the presence of dioxins.
Some commentators have suggested the fact that there is no facility in the country led to a delay in getting the results of the test. That is not the case. Owing to the fact the samples were taken by hand to York, there was no appreciable delay in the results becoming available. The State Laboratory in the Backweston complex is in the process of being accredited to carry out dioxin tests and it is hoped the accreditation process will be completed in the first quarter of next year.
Following the non-dioxin like PCBs positive results, the premises of the producer of the positive feed sample was officially restricted and a list of customers was acquired. The premises of the customers of the feed producer — ten pig farms and 38 beef farms — were then restricted. Farm-to-farm movements from these farms have since been traced and a number of additional farms placed under restriction.
The Department issued a press release on Thursday, 4 December confirming an investigation into the source of a contaminant in animal feed and the restriction of a number of farms. The following day the Dutch authorities contacted the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, about the discovery of PCBs in pork fat samples in Holland. It is important to stress that the Department had not previously been made aware of the Dutch investigation and that we were made aware of it only after we had placed information in the public domain.
At 3.40 p.m. on Saturday, 6 December, the Central Science Laboratory, York confirmed the presence of dioxins in pork samples. A decision was immediately taken by the FSAI, requiring the trade to recall all Irish pork products from pigs slaughtered since 1 September. This date was chosen on the basis of the evidence available to the FSAI. The analysis of the feed samples taken from the feed manufacturer for the presence of PCBs supported this position. The FSAI also advised consumers not to consume any Irish pork or bacon products, but stressed that people should not be alarmed or concerned about the potential risks from dioxins found in pork products, as a short-term peak exposure to dioxins does not result in adverse health effects.
The decision to have a full recall of pork and bacon products was taken to reassure consumers that Irish pork and bacon products available on the market following the recall would be perfectly safe to consume. I am entirely satisfied that it was the appropriate response to the confirmed presence of dioxins and believe it will provide the necessary reassurance for consumers as soon as Irish pork products reappear on shop shelves, I hope in the coming days.
The Department's ongoing investigation into the source of the contamination has centred on a single food business operator and is being assisted by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the Garda Síochána. The particular focus of the investigation relates to the type of fuel used in a burner used to heat surplus food material for use as animal feed. This process is regarded as a relatively simple one. Preliminary test results on samples of the oil taken by the Department for analysis suggest the operator may have been using an inappropriate oil for this process. Further investigations are being undertaken by the EPA into the oil used. In the meantime, the farms placed under restriction remain under restriction and no animals have been allowed to move off them. I am acutely conscious of the particular difficulties that the absence of any processing is causing for pig producers, many of whom have thousands of pigs ready for slaughter this week.
The Government is anxious that processing recommence as soon as possible and particularly conscious of the impact on the thousands of workers employed at pig producing plants, as well as the many producers who are anxious to move animals for slaughter. It is in everybody's interests that slaughtering recommence quickly and that we get back into the market, restore consumer confidence and protect what is a vital element of the wider agri-food sector. To this end, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, with officials from the Department, have been engaged in intensive discussions with representatives of the processing sector, with a view to putting in place a financial aid package that would facilitate the early resumption of processing. These discussions are continuing and progress is being made. I remain optimistic that we can reach an agreement that will ensure slaughtering resumes this week.
There has been an amount of criticism relating to the recall of organic pork products, as organic producers should not and would not use the feed ingredient in question. I know a number of organic farmers personally and I am fully confident they would not use the material in the feed. However, not all consumers would be aware of the conditions under which organic farmers operate and in order to give all consumers full confidence in the recall process and reassure them that no contaminated product was on the shelves, it was important to recall all Irish pork and bacon products from the market. I have, however, put in place arrangements to allow organic pig farmers to return their products to the marketplace and will make an announcement in this regard later this afternoon.
I would like to address the results of the testing of beef herds. The results show that eight out of the 11 samples were clear, while three were just above the proposed legislative limits for non-dioxin like PCBs in beef. The PCBs in the three beef samples were found to be significantly lower than those found in the Irish pork samples. The FSAI has also stated PCB beef limits are completely different from those of pork. It has concluded that as these PCB levels pose an extremely low risk to public health, there is no requirement for a consumer level recall of Irish beef from the market. This conclusion is influenced by the facts that there is a substantially low level of PCBs in the samples and that there is superior traceability for beef. Also, the farms in question are restricted and animals from them will not be released to the market. We have a statement from the European Food Safety Authority to support that view.
It has been suggested that because there was no requirement for a recall of beef, the recall of pork was unwarranted or was a disproportionate action. From what the FSAI has said, there is a clear difference between beef and pork, and to suggest otherwise is to display a misunderstanding of the situation. There has been some criticism of the Department's food safety controls, especially in respect of feed controls. I wish to clarify, in particular, the feed control and residue control systems operated by the Department. These control systems are major elements of the national control plan for Ireland. This multi-annual integrated control plan is approved by the European Commission and covers all the controls on animal health and welfare, food safety and feedstuffs controls for Ireland.
The feed inspection programme involves approximately 2,200 on-the-spot inspections per annum, covering all aspects of the feedstuffs chain. It includes taking 1,800 samples from the complete range of feed materials. These samples undergo a total of 72,000 laboratory analyses, which include tests for PCBs. The inspections cover a range of areas, including imports, mills, mineral mixture plants, retailers of animal feed and farms, and are carried out without prior notice to the owner of the premises being inspected. The level of inspections carried out complies with, and in many cases exceeds, the requirements of the EU legislation. Premises are inspected on a risk assessment basis.
The premises from which the contaminated feed originated is regarded as low risk because it receives its raw materials from companies registered with the Department to supply food to be used in the animal feed sector. As the raw materials were fit for human consumption, a feed premises using such raw material is regarded as low risk and is subject to one or two inspections annually. The premises in question was inspected in 2006 and 2007 and had been scheduled for an inspection in late November or December 2008, which had not taken place when the suspected contaminated material was found.
On foot of the discovery of the contaminated feed, it has been suggested this premises should have had a higher risk rating because of the apparent misuse of fuel. However, part of the risk assessment process is based on the results of previous inspections, in which no problems were discovered. The possible use of the wrong type of oil in a premises could not have been foreseen on the basis of previous inspections of that premises and, therefore, could not have been taken into account in the risk assessment process.
The national residue programme involves a risk-based sampling regime, in which more than 30,000 samples are taken from animal tissues at farm and primary processing levels. These samples are tested for a broad range of residues, including, for example, banned hormones, authorised medicines and a large number of contaminants. I am satisfied that the Department has in place a strong food and feed control system. These are complementary systems and, in this case, the contamination was picked up by the food residue controls. As with all controls operated by the Department, these will be kept under continual review to ensure that the food produced in Ireland continues to reach the highest standards of food safety.
The position that has arisen in pigmeat and, to a much lesser extent, beef requires a balanced and proportionate response. I am satisfied that the Government has acted swiftly, decisively and responsibly. I believe the actions taken will reassure consumers and, with the assistance of a new Bord Bia labelling system, Irish pork and bacon products will be back on the shelves very quickly. Significant progress has been made in the discussions with the processing and producer interests and I am confident that Irish product will be back on the shelves very shortly.